You might have heard the term “opioids” on the news. It’s a general term for any number of prescription medications and illegal drugs that are derived from or act like opium, which comes from the poppy plant. Prescription opioids such as fentanyl, codeine and morphine are often prescribed by doctors to treat intense pain, and in that they are highly effective. However, opioids have a dark side, in that they can be highly addictive if misused, and have been known to destroy entire communities.
How Opioids Work
Opioids work by targeting specific opioid receptors in the body, called the mu, delta and kappa receptors which are located in the brain stem, limbic system and the spinal cord. The spinal cord is where they stop pain signals from reaching the brain, which provides pain relief; the brainstem is where opioids slow down breathing and reducing painful coughing. The limbic system is where opioids can produce a pleasurable effect and helps people relax. It is this pleasurable feeling that leads many people down the road to opioid abuse.
Those who take opioids without a prescription or use illegal substances like heroin run a high risk of opioid abuse or addiction because of the effects opioids have on the reward center of the brain. Opioids flood the brain with a chemical called dopamine, giving people the euphoria they are seeking, and making opioids highly addictive. Since the brain is hardwired to repeat pleasurable behaviors, this is what starts many down the path to opioid abuse and addiction.
Some of the symptoms of opioid abuse include:
- Decreased sense of pain
- Decreased respiration
- Stomach upset, including nausea, vomiting and constipation